Stephen Gregory’s first novel, The Cormorant, tells a chilling story about a man, his wife and toddler, and the hellish bird they inherit from a distant relative. The tale blended otherworldly and psychological terrors with a prose style reminiscent of Robert Aickman’s works. At the time of its release, that particular novel drew inevitable comparison to the works of Poe (birds and the macabre could do nothing else in the public eye). We reviewed that early work here.
As it turns out, before that novel hit the stands, the author dabbled with the unusual relationship between a family and a cormorant in a short story. That piece landed in the December 5, 1983 issue of the Illustrated London News. Instead of a family finding themselves the inheritors of a house, grounds and hellish bird, “The Cormorant” tells the story of a man who brings a wounded bird home from a fishing trip, nurses it back to health, and finds himself in a rather unusual relationship with the brute. In some ways, it could be the prequel to the novel. It certainly explores a bird as symbolically and sometimes supernaturally linked to a man’s fractured or fracturing psychology. This is a motif that runs through much of Gregory’s fiction. “The Cormorant” is one of fourteen tales (nested in the table of contents at slot number three) in the author’s first collection, On Dark Wings.
It should come as no surprise to find that On Dark Wings contains quite a few birds in its pages. Owls and their pellets (excreta containing bones of their kills) drive some of the narratives, that razor beaked cormorant appears in a couple of the tales, and numerous other species find their way into these works. Likewise, mushrooms and decomposers make appearances here as well, in a previously unpublished tale or two that might have been composed around the author’s second novel, The Woodwitch, which incorporates fungus much in the same way Gregory’s other fiction uses birds: rich metaphors as well as possibly supernaturally powered tormentors.
One does not need to wait for “The Cormorant” to see the author’s fowl fascination, either. The interest is present from the get go. In the opening tale, “To Catch A Thief,” a boy tries to identify the mysterious thieves of knickknacks from his father’s wildlife gallery and tea shop. As the young protagonist explores the incident, he finds a strange relationship between the thefts and a watercolor painting of magpies . . . A short reminiscence, the tale warns us almost from the start that it is a strange story, which might not be believed. However, it merrily explores the intersection of the strange, the mundane and the wildlife that moves between these worlds.
Gregory’s prose style is lyrical but never dense. He draws a reader in with an incident or a scene, explores that scene and builds to a revelation. Similar to Richard Christian Matheson, he excels at the short-short story, managing to evoke a mood or a gorgeous yet dark image in a limited number of pages. Of the entries here, only two tales clock in at over twenty pages. The others are brief but lovely gems, cut and polished to offer dark spectacles.
The first of the lengthier tales is “Celandine and Periwinkle,” a chilling piece about a teacher who guides five boys out during the midnight hours to gather owl pellets only to find he might have lost one of the boys en route. The rest of the staff is roused, and a frantic search of grounds and school ensues. The piece is an exquisite exploration of hunters moving at night, of uncertainty, of the brooding kind of terror that most adults feel that first time they are left in charge of other people’s children only to discover they might well had fouled the whole experience up. It’s a marvel of mood and it sketches not only the protagonist’s character but that of the missing boy, a shy and fragile boy who could easily be a vessel for the young teacher’s own hopes and fears. “Celandine and Periwinkle” is the sort of story that draws us in with attentive characterization and then drops a pleasant plot bomb on a reader’s lap to make us turn pages. It starts out carefully enough and builds to a dread-inducing exploration of the age old question” What happens next?” However, it is also one of those tales that rewards a revisit by opening up to reveal nuances and layers.
The other lengthy piece, “The Boys Who Wouldn’t Wake Up” is the literal and figurative centerpiece of the book. A Christmas-set story of a boy abandoned over the holidays at his school and the haunted schoolmaster who must care for him, the piece tackles topics of grief and regret as it unfolds the relationship between these two characters, a man troubled by a tragic fire that happened fifty-plus years prior when he was a student and the boy who might well find himself caught up in the ghostly visitation that tragedy sparked. Here, Gregory invokes the kinds of tales M. R. James delighted in composing. It carries on the tradition of the Christmas ghost story. Instead of delving into pure homage or pastiche, Gregory makes the material his own, and the result is a slow burn ghost story that walks a delicate balance between the eerie and the revelatory. After I was done, I thought it might make a great companion piece to James’ works as well as Guillermo del Toro’s film The Devil’s Backbone, another ghost story set in a boy’s school where the ghosts manage to be both spooky and tragic.
On Dark Wings does not only contain traditional horror tales. The stories are more often lyrical, literary works. Of course, the lion’s share of these tackles dark topics and themes. Gregory might not be a pulpy horror writer, but he is nevertheless drawn to dark themes, images and conflicts. A woman grapples with the aftermath of an accident that ended both her husband’s life as well as her career as a flautist by obsessing with the natural music around her in “The Blackbird’s Song.” That piece builds on a tragic event and manages to find an unusual resolution. A boy’s fascination with a farm’s swine leads him to discover a strange connection with a blind specimen in “The Dreaming Pig.” One of the more haunting and inspired stories, “The Drowning of Colin Henderson,” follows a man’s passage after being swept overboard in the 1960s; horrific adventures do not only happen to the living, it would seem.
Gregory’s style is spare and yet it evokes lush moments. His attention to sensory details is acute. He uses many of the tools found in literary works in order to create believable psychologies of characters experiencing some kind of crisis. How they maneuver through those crises or how they do not is his main subject of interest. Sometimes the crisis itself involves supernatural or paranormal elements and events. As in his first novel, the otherworldly elements have a dreamlike quality. These appear in ways that are arguable as to their actual presence at all. As a reader, I enjoy those sorts of weird pieces that make me wonder “Is the significance this character is placing on this event actually supernatural or merely an illusion?” Gregory uses dark elements as metaphors relating to the characters own slowly breaking down psychology. In that way, he is appealing to the same sorts of roots that drive horror fiction masters like Ramsey Campbell. There are touches of M. R. James and Aickman, of course. As well, the stories echo Henry James and a bit of Arthur Machen. They are not slavish pastiches or homages, however. Each of these pieces is distinctly a Stephen Gregory story.
Readers yearning for more literate horrors after finishing the latest collection from Paul Tremblay will find themselves rewarded with this collection. In fact, Tremblay himself wrote a glowing introduction to Valancourt Book’s re-release of Gregory’s second novel, The Woodwitch. It seems he is a fan of this author. After reading this collection, literary horror readers who might have been unfamiliar with the author before might find themselves converted as well. Luckily, a few entries from the author’s backlist are easily available to satisfy cravings for more. Gregory is not a prolific author, but he is nevertheless an individual one and his prose is rich, fascinating.
The publisher, Valancourt Books, has developed a solid reputation for publishing quirky, literate and thoughtful horror and LGBT fiction. Mostly known for repackaging older, overlooked works they have also been releasing occasional original works. Their catalog is a great resource for horror readers looking for Edwardian/Victorian horror reprints as well as notable works from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. This year, they also started republishing some of the books highlighted in Grady Hendrix and Will Erickson’s Bram Stoker Award Winning overview of 1970s/1980s horror fiction, Paperbacks From Hell. On Dark Wings is a terrific entry in Valancourt’s already impressive catalog.
Next up, we will tackle Donald E. Westlake’s take on angels, devils, and the apocalypse in Humans. No eBooks are yet available, but artifact editions can be found in the wild . . .
Gregory, Stephen. On Dark Wings. Valancourt Books: 2019.
“Flutters and Frights: Stephen Gregory’s On Dark Wings” is copyright © 2019 by Daniel R. Robichaud. Cover is taken from the Valancourt Books paperback release, and is copyright © 2019.